The Boss 

In David Brent's The Office, it's better to be popular than competent.

On October 12, BBC America aired the second-season premiere of The Office, the beloved mockumentary that follows paper-selling rats 'round the maze of cubicles leading to the office of head cheese David Brent, a pathetic little man who says in public things no rational human being would even think in private. On October 13, those of us addicted to this British-imported fiction that often feels more tangible than real life spent a good part of the day in our own offices recounting the events of the episode, in which new workers arrive and throw David's cozy fiefdom into disarray.

After a season of being tolerated by his own staff, who shrug off his lousy jokes and sexist comments and racist asides, David is no longer considered office funnyman but the butt of his own stupid and ill-considered gags. And none is more stupid and ill-considered than the one about the Royal Family playing 20 questions ("Is it bigger than a bread bin?" "Can I put it in my mouth?"), which stopped no one who saw The Office from repeating its awful punch line around their own offices the next day.

"I think what was said most the next day was, 'Did you see how many times they said, is it a black man's cock?'" says Ricky Gervais, the man who created and plays David Brent. "Who'd have thought it? Now grannies and granddads around the country are saying that one."

Gervais, a beloved figure on British television and radio, where he co-hosts a show on station XFM with The Office's co-creator and co-director Stephen Merchant, then proceeds to giggle like a little boy who's gotten away with something. The joke with the horrible punch line, mind you, is not meant to offend, merely to show David's wrong-headed handling of issues of race and good taste. But it makes him giggle anyway, because Gervais knows that some people will find the line hilarious, while others will want to stab at the remote in an effort to run the hell away from this guy and this show.

The Office, set in the Slough office of paper-goods manufacturer Wernham-Hogg, belongs to a burgeoning brand of television best called "irritainment," in that it makes you cringe as much as it makes you chuckle. The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm belong to the genre; the forerunner, perhaps, was the film This is Spinal Tap, among Gervais' most-cited influences. On Larry Sanders, you had actors playing themselves--darker, angrier, meaner versions of themselves. On Curb, you have Seinfeld creator Larry David playing Seinfeld creator Larry David, without any tact or hint of decency. They have in common this uncanny ability to make you turn away from the TV set, as though you were peeking through your fingers at films of extreme plastic-surgery makeovers or Sharon Osbourne's talk show. You know these to be fiction, yet still you gasp in horror when the people in them say things so stupid and offensive they land themselves in oceans of boiling-hot water.

"It's the comedy of embarrassment," Gervais says. "It's a man making it worse for himself. There's a reality about it, a realism even down to references...And it is irritainment, yeah. The thing about that is, I get embarrassed watching television. I watch things, usually documentaries or reality game shows, where the celebrities say things that I just want to crawl into a hole for their sake. My worst one is someone singing seriously. I have to leave the room. So I tried to get that in there--someone just exposing themselves. I know what irritates me, so some of the things Brent does I find irritating, and I know it's annoying other people more than me. So, I'm on top."

In the first season, just out on DVD in the States, David is a laughable, lovable buffoon--a sympathetic clod desperate for respect, attention and love from the people who work for him, including Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a self-important ex-military man; Tim (Martin Freeman), a sales rep aware he's starting at a dead end; and Dawn (Lucy Davis), the lovely receptionist with the shit boyfriend. David fancies himself a rock star among drooling groupies, which is made horrifically clear during a management-training session when he whips out his acoustic guitar and begins performing his self-penned "Freelove Highway."

David has no life outside the workplace and believes instead the people who work for him are his family--blood brothers, even if the blood is just that drawn from a workplace paper cut. Yet the irony is that David thinks only of himself: When informed the company will be downsizing and that some of his workers will be fired, he happily acquiesces if it means a promotion. As he tells the staff, "There's good news and bad news. The bad news is Neil will be taking over both branches and some of you will lose your job. On a more positive note, the good news is I've been promoted, so every cloud...You're still thinking about the bad news, aren't you?" He's delusional and occasionally even cruel, but so unbelievably pitiable you can't help but like him. Or maybe you're just glad you aren't him, which is enough.

David Brent was born in 1997, when Gervais and Merchant were killing time at XFM. Back then he was known only as "Seedy Boss," a scurvy womanizer prone to fits of rage. Gervais and Merchant made a demo, seen on the DVD's making-of documentary, that was eventually bought by the BBC and turned into The Office. But the writing partners found it necessary to temper David for the series; otherwise he would have been so unlikable viewers wouldn't have tolerated him for an episode.


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